Ridiculous or not? Hotels eye airline-like rebooking fees

by Christopher Elliott on September 30, 2011


I‘m always on the lookout for new fees, so when Katherine Walton emailed me about her recent stay at the Chateau Timberline, a hotel in Packwood, Wash., she had my attention.

Walton needed to cancel her reservation a day before her arrival.

“An agent told me they would charge a $100 fee – the price of one night,” she says. “So even if they are able to rebook the room I will not get a refund.”

Cancellation penalties like that aren’t uncommon. I double-checked with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and it confirmed that such fees are routinely charged.

“Many times, it is the first night’s room charge,” says Joe McInerney, the association’s president. “It depends when it is canceled.”

What set the Chateau Timberline apart, as far as I could tell, was that it didn’t disclose the fee to Walton, at least not until she needed to cancel. Also, its terms and conditions are a somewhat unusual. Read them for yourself.

Here’s the relevant language in its terms:

CANCELLATION POLICY & LATE PAYMENT: Should Guest fail to pay as agreed, or requests a cancellation, Manager may sell Guest’s dates to any third party.

If Manager is able to re-sell Guest’s dates at net rates of at least equal to those charged to Guest, Manager will refund Guest’s Use Fee less a Re-Booking fee as specified by Manager.

That’s a little vague, according to Walton. It also leaves the door open for other unspecified fees.

“This fee is not listed anywhere online other than saying it is ‘specified by manager’,” she says. “This seems excessive.”

I asked Chateau Timberline about about Walton’s cancellation. It didn’t respond.

Here’s what I’m worried about: While it may be a standard practice to penalize guests who cancel their rooms by charging for one night’s lodging, the newer terms and conditions I’m seeing seem to lay the framework for the opportunity for new fees. In addition to charging a night, there’s a possibility of a “rebooking fee” that uses the airline model – and airline logic.

Airlines charge a $150 fee to rebook tickets. Does it cost $150 to change a ticket? No. Airlines say the fee covers the revenue opportunity they lost. Passengers say that’s a money grab.

When I read the Chateau Timberline’s terms, I see a little bit of that logic. They may not be charging $150 for the revenue opportunity, but they’re coming closer. (I could be reading into it; the fine print is confusing.)

Already, hotels charge non-refundable rates – and not always clearly disclosed – so can gratuitous rebooking fees be too far away?

I’d like to think not. I prefer to believe that Chateau Timberline’s terms simply veered a little from the industry standard, but that at the end of the day, it’s still a hotel at heart, not a wannabe airline.

But I’ve been observing this industry for too long to be absolutely convinced of that. I know that any competent hotel revenue manager would love to make every room totally nonrefundable, charge customers a rebooking fee to use what’s left of the credit, and perhaps a mandatory resort fee while they’re at it – and to get away with it.

All the more reason to be vigilant, to read the fine print and to know your rights the next time you reserve a hotel room.

(Photo: lumiere fl/Flickr)

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  • Vyrgrl1

    Just another sign of more greed

  • DaveB

    Their failure to respond to you speaks volumes. This is not a place I would want to deal with.
    Reputable hotels clearly state the cancellation requirements and charges.

  • DonValleyTravel

    From what I can tell, this place is a VERY TINY, very remote, little country inn, nestled in the wilderness, with about 15 rooms. How come everyone acts like the hotel is some monster here?  I also don’t understand how Elliott can easily find the terms enough to quote them for a blog post, but claims the customer was ignorant of the cancellation policy. We also don’t know the conditions of her booking arrangements, what the reservation terms were, or if the guest even asked in advance about the possibility of a change or cancellation. If this were an airport Courtyard by Marriott with 140 rooms and dozens of cancellations, changes and walk-ins every hour that would be one thing, but as a reader we must take the context into consideration. This particular property is found on some daily flash sites and seems to be offering some incredibly discounted pre-paid deals. Perhaps this guest was traveling under some heavily discounted and necessarily restrictive “deal” that carried certain terms and conditions one might expect in that environment. Or, maybe this was on OTA booking, with zero or negative margins, perhaps even carrying restrictive terms from the OTA? How come people (Including Elliott) generally accept that huge companies (like Microsoft (expedia), travelocity, orbitz, priceline), etc can offer special deals with Non-refundable and Non-changeable conditions, but for some small struggling hotel it’s bullied by this one sided perspective? As a travel agent, I for one know for CERTAIN that people never read their terms and conditions, until it’s time for them to try to wiggle out of something. Most people think to themselves, “Oh the rules don’t apply to me”, Or “Well, if they are in the service business, good service means doing what I want so the terms don’t matter”, etc. One of the great reasons to use a reputable, personable travel agent is that this agent get’s to know you and your traveling style so he or she can minimize these types of issues. When I worked for a hotel a couple years ago, with only 25 rooms, it was chaos when guest’s had last minute changes. The costs of these revisions is usually born by a fair and profitable per night rate, but when hotels discount with special packages and come-ons one must expect there to be an offset. What ever happened to making a commitment, being sure you understand whatever the terms are before you make such a commitment, and then honoring one’s commitment? Or would we like all hotels to be run by non-profits or even worse, the government?

  • DonValleyTravel

    PS: Took exactly 7 seconds for me to find the following on their website:

    “Guest agrees the booking is non-cancelable and non-refundable unless, at
    Guest’s later written request, Manager is able to sell Guest’s dates
    according to the Cancellation Policy below.”

  • Bodega

    No it is a sign of trying to make a living. 

  • Tony A.

    DonVT, I think lots of people think that everything is a COMMODITY or something made in Chinese sweat shops and should cost close to nothing. This thinking is further reinforced because people get a lot of things for “FREE” in the internet so they think all services should be free, too. Amazing how small businesses can easily get marginalized in today’s society.

  • DaveB

    This may be small but it is run by Sunspot Resorts. I got on the hotel web site and looked their terms and conditions. It’s a wonder you have the right to use your room. I’ve never seen so many rules. I would never go to a hotel that made me feel so restricted. It says you cannot write a review of the hotel without the managers permission.

  • http://www.eyeflare.com/ Jack Norell

    Let’s say this was booked through an OTA, would a non-standard cancellation policy like this even be visible through say Expedia?

  • Rajasthan Tours

    nice blog information

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